If Your Employees Seem Complacent, Look In The Mirror

Sep 01, 2017 1 Min Read

A few years ago, I worked with a fast-growth business-to-business technology company. It was exciting. It was sold. Excitement ended.

Before that, I worked with a fast-growth company in clean energy. It was exciting. It was sold. Excitement ended.

Such is the cycle of business. Invent. Build. Sell. Rinse and repeat.

In the maze of large companies we often find disengaged, or complacent workers. They punch in and punch out. When they punch out, they check out.

I have observed that, during the fast-growth phase, employees are engaged. Their jobs are critical to success. Each has a purpose.

An entrepreneur – with a vision to solve problems – who drives business efficiency and/or makes life better, usually ignites the culture of a smaller company. That passion and focus drives others to achieve the mission and be engaged in their work.

But, for many companies, there is a transition from exciting to boring when a company is sold.

It is summed up in Parkinson’s Law: “that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” As companies grow, and work gets divided and specialised, Parkinson’s Law can seep into an organisation.

The worker that had 20 tasks to complete in a day, now has five. Five tasks fill a whole day. And often, the employee does not know if or how those tasks are connected to the overall company goals.

Workers become complacent. In fact, bored.

keeping staff engaged

But, if an employee is complacent, is it because of the employee, or the manager? Should the manager question him or herself before confronting the employee?

According to Ken Siegel, chief executive officer of The Impact Group, a Los Angeles-based group of psychologists who consult worldwide to management, “if your employees seem complacent, look in the mirror.”

According to Siegel, a manager must first ask him or herself how they are contributing to the problem of worker complacency. Or, what is that manager doing which encourages employees to just “get by.”

Does the executive reward employees for complacency? The reward can be as simple as letting complacency continue unabated. Or, is the manager seeking to claim the glory?

Letting complacency continue can be as simple as the manager avoiding the issue, avoiding conflict, which is actually avoiding facing his or her own shortcomings.

The deeper question that Siegel brought up was, what is at personal risk for the manager to end worker complacency?

Siegel said: “What’s usually at risk is the manager’s perception by others in the organisation. If they step out too much, they risk being perceived as a self-promoter, or self-serving.

“There are usually risks associated with how others define us – which is a very immature level of personal development.”

Siegel said that top leaders are not defined by outside perceptions, but rather what is inside them. “The best managers have an internal conviction and belief in what they are doing and trying to create.

“That translates into creating teams that are aspirational task and goal-focused. And, those managers celebrate the goals with the team. It creates employee engagement and sense of purpose.

“Complacency is the hidden organisational disease – it is hard to pinpoint. It is not about what people do, but what they don’t do.”

I have worked with both large and small organisations. Smaller companies need to take chances to grow. Larger companies need to protect their turf.

While these two statements are blatantly obvious, the shift from small to large is a change in mindset. In a small company, mistakes and taking chances are encouraged.

In large companies, perfection and defending sales or market perception is the goal. Large companies can create a culture of diminishing returns in the search for perfection.

In large corporations – good is not good enough. As a result, large organisations find themselves checking and rechecking work products with teams of people. It leads to group decisions, group writing and groupthink.

Group mentality drives mediocrity and complacency. It trickles to employees. Rather than grow their career, employees work to protect their jobs.

So, how do companies keep employees on task and engaged? An answer is to think and operate like a small company down to motivating the individual worker.

I read a recent article in Inc. Magazine entitled 8 Things Exceptional Bosses Constantly Tell Their Employees. It is a list that is a license for an employee to take chances and get involved.

It is also a guidepost for a boss to be a supportive guide and cheerleader. The eight things are:

1. “I have total confidence in you.”
2. “This is what I want us to accomplish…”
3. “What can we do better next time?”
4. “I want to play to your strengths.”
5. “What is your opinion?”
6. “How can I better support you?”
7. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
8. “Good work.”

Of course, employees can be complacent on their own. Each can check in and out daily – even get all their work completed, yet be disengaged. So how does a manager identify that person?

This might interest youHow To Be An Effective And Engaging New Manager?

To better understand this manager’s dilemma, I asked Bob Damon, one of the top executive search consultants globally, who today is a partner at Ventura Partners.

Damon noted that a key to a non-complacent employee is one that has direction and goals. Damon references a famous quote from Yogi Berra, the baseball great: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

Damon has observed, through thousands of interviews, that a person with purpose is a person with passion. Damon takes note of the little things like a person’s surroundings that can speak volumes about them.

Damon says: “It may sound trivial, but I actually look at a person’s workspace or office. Do they have photos of their dog, or favourite vacation spot?

keeping staff engaged

“Even in today’s mobile work environment, it may just be on their computer desktop. Work needs to be a second home for people. They need to love to be there. Then they will perform.”

Damon also says that just looking at a person’s facial expressions will tell if they are complacent or engaged. Do they look fired up with energy when they talk about work? Are they inviting? Are their eyes sparkling?

“A critical factor in engagement is pride. Pride in work. Pride in surroundings. Pride in self. Any good manager can feel it from their workers,” Damon says.

While Damon references Yogi Berra and the need to know one’s direction, he notes also that the past can be an indicator of future engagement in work.

To understand if a person is engaged versus complacent, Damon asks job candidates to reflect on their last three to four years of employment and zero in on accomplishments that gave them a great sense of pride.

“History is the platform for future success. An employee needs to either emulate the example of a boss, or use past success as a launch pad for the future. A solid background will drive future success,” he says.

So, back to those first companies I referenced earlier in this article. Each was absorbed into larger organisations.

In doing so, they became cash cows inside multinational organisations. The original entrepreneurs exited, and many of the absorbed personnel became complacent cows inside of a cash cow business.

So to engage employees, practice the eight things exceptional bosses tell employees.

And remember to think small – or at least act like a small company. Small business thinking can engage employees with big results.

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Tags: Foundational Leadership


Rob Wyse is an expert in communications. For thirty years, he has guided companies in creating compelling story arcs that connect brands to customers. At the heart of his storytelling has been the management of issues/policy to drive market opportunity. Companies he has worked with have had financial exits that exceed $16 US billion. Issues include AI, climate change, the future of work, diversity, and healthcare.

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